In “For Ellen,” which opens this week in New York City, Paul Dano plays Joby Taylor, a frustrated rock star who heads to a snowy upstate town to figure out the settlement of a custody battle for his daughter. It’s an atypical role for Dano, usually seen as quieter, less sexualized characters. Even though the actor has tried to transcend genres through a diverse, young career, few could have predicted they would see the former Eli Sunday as a potential rock ‘n’ roller.
While the film was a only three-week shoot, director So Yong Kim, who we talked to alongside her star recently ahead of the film’s release, revealed that Dano spent a massive amount of time preparing on his own. “Paul had a lot of time to get into the character,” she claims. “And he did a lot of research on his own, what type of music Joby is into, what he looks like, how he dresses.” This proved difficult since Dano, an accomplished musician, is not necessarily aware of the hard rock scene, and would psyche himself up by listening to Guns ’n’ Roses on the set. “We looked at lots of music videos,” she says of their research. “It’s really about how he wants to present himself. But I think emotionally, because Paul is such a dedicated actor, he worked on a lot of backstory for Joby on his own.”
Adds Paul, “This guy’s pretty vain, and probably thinks he’s better looking than he is. He probably looks at himself a lot in the mirror.” It was So Yong Kim’s shooting style that proved to be a sharp assist to the actor. “So shoots longer takes, so I spent a lot of time with this character,” he says. But building the character had it’s own built-in difficulties. “Some of the things were really simple, like the second I put on jewelry or painting my nails black, you start to feel different,” he smiles. “Listening to a certain type of music, reading Tommy Lee’s book, reading Slash’s book, it helps you discover a different energy.”
So Yong Kim also felt that Dano was an ideal fit for the seventies-era vibe of the film, citing “Five Easy Pieces” as a major inspiration. “It’s in there, subconsciously,” she says. “I looked at a lot of seventies films to prepare for this film. For me, ‘Five Easy Pieces’ is a huge influence for me.” But when writing the film, it didn’t occur to her that Dano would be a fit for the film, as it was originally written for a thirtysomething actor. “The character was in his mid-thirties,” she told us, regarding earlier drafts of the script. But “It’s more about slightly adjusting the attitudes, and changing the support characters. We had to make sure Ellen was accordingly aged [to Paul].”
Paul came aboard when he was taken by the story, admitting that it wasn’t something easily pried from his mind. “The first time I read the script it read like a short story, it was probably like seventy pages,” he says. “Endings that are ambiguous I sometimes dislike, but I remember being moved by the ending, and that script was with me a few days later, which is really not usually the case.
“For Ellen” also features a notable co-star for Dano in Jon Heder. In a non-comedic role, Heder plays Fred, Joby’s attorney and, ideally, a new friend. “I thought of somebody who could be brighter, in a sense, in contrast to Joby,” Kim reasons. “So I was thinking about that, and Jon was someone who was recommended to me from Paul’s agency.” While many would have balked by including the star from “Napoleon Dynamite” in a serious drama, Kim welcomed the cast addition. “I thought, there could be an opportunity there. Jon is such a sweet and wonderful person, so I knew the balance would work out.”
While the cast and crew were excited to work with the material, the challenges implicit in low budget filmmaking remained. A key sequence in the film finds a drunken Joby dancing to a song on the jukebox as if he’s a rock star onstage, though this scene almost ran into serious trouble because of the budgetary limitations. Paul remembers, “There’s a dance scene in the film, and I remember early, me and So, I told her, I want to know what this song is, so I can come up with a sick-ass dance number. And then we couldn’t get the song, we couldn’t afford any of the songs [we wanted]. So we got this Whitesnake song the day before.” Paul’s shoulders shrugged, sheepishly admitting his missed opportunity for a choreography credit, “I sorta had to wing it. It ended up being perfect, but I remember wanting to prepare the hell out of this dance!”
“For Ellen” is now screening in New York City, and will be released on VOD on September 19th.